24th Sunday of the Year: B, Sept. 13, 2015
As I was reading over the first scripture lesson for today’s liturgy, it struck me that tomorrow is the Feast of the Holy Cross – which always occurs 6 months before Palm Sunday. Not by accident, I suspect, that reading is also the first reading of Palm Sunday.
The Gospel also reminds us of the Cross – how Jesus, the man of sorrows, cautioned his followers that they, too, should take up their own cross in order to follow him rightly. That is, to embrace the rejection and likely persecution that inevitably seems to accompany discipleship.
Nine years ago, when I preached on this Sunday, everyone was keenly aware of the mass shooting that had just occurred at Dawson College in Montreal, in which one student was killed and 19 others, most of them students, were seriously injured before the shooter was killed by the police. Five of the students were visitors on the Duquesne University basketball team. It wasn’t entirely clear what motivated the rampage. But in his journal and blogs, the shooter claimed to have been inspired by a web game he was addicted to, “Super Columbine Massacre.”
That got me thinking about the number of such incidents that had occurred since then. Between 1996 and 2005 there had been 40, the majority of them in the United States. Over the last ten years, there have been fifty school and mass shootings, 42 of them here in the United States. [“A Time Line of Recent Worldwide School and Mass Shootings,” http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0777958.html, 13 September 2015.] That does not include the casual, drive-by shootings that occur almost nightly and even daily in Chicago, Los Angeles, and other major cities, or incidents such as the shooting of Lt. Joseph Gliniewicz in Fox Lake last weekend or similar attacks on the police and military personnel or terrorist incidents such as that in France two weeks ago.
Between March, 2005, and this August, there were only 8 other such incidents in Baku, Brazil, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, and Kenya. It is particularly sobering to realize that there were six times as many school and mass shootings in the United States than the rest of the world combined. You might think it could even have something to do with gun control. But today as a decade ago, one thing stands out pretty clearly in the midst of all the analysis, fretting, soul-searching, and recrimination that these events provoke. The perpetrators, as we call them, particularly the students themselves, tend to be loners, fascinated by violence, and especially resentful at perceived and real rejection by their peers. That hasn’t changed.
In our socially over-heated world, the fear of rejection and the hostility it nurtures have become epidemic. Cyber-bullying with its sometimes terrible consequences is part of the price we pay for ever-tighter entanglement in social media, especially among the most vulnerable of all – children. And among their elders, political vitriol seems to be growing more corrosive with each approaching election.
And so it may seem a little weird to hear Jesus speaking the way he does about rejection as the price we have to be prepared to pay for discipleship. But Mark’s message about Jesus is clear enough: to be the anointed of God, the Messiah, the Christ, meant to be rejected and put to death by government and religious officials. Many ordinary people would reject him as well. From the beginning, Christians applied other words of the prophet Isaiah to him: “He was despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.” [Isaiah 53:3]
Our faith tells us that God’s will to create goodness out of evil, to bring joy out of sorrow, to bring comfort and hope where there is suffering and despair, cannot be deflected by suspicion or cynicism or outright opposition. As Isaiah says in today’s first reading, “I have set my face like flint knowing that I shall not be put to shame.” Not in the end. The responsory psalm appointed for today reminds us, more gently, that “God keeps the little ones; I was brought low, and the Lord saved me. God freed my soul from death, my eyes from tears, and my feet from stumbling.”
James repeats the same message: faith that does not become evident in good works is simply not real faith. But it is not how the world gauges success that determines how well that faith is realized in practice. It is in courageous persistence in the face of opposition and rejection that tests and eventually proves the merit of what Isaiah, James, Jesus, and contemporary witnesses are committed to — especially young people who, like the students I met recently who work for Greenpeace, or Habitat for Humanity, or many who simply organize benefits for those in need or for an end to gun violence in Chicago. This week I was deeply impressed by TV interviews with several young and not-so-young people who, much like the first responders who sprang into action in New York that sunny day fourteen years ago, have volunteered to travel to the Middle East, Austria, Hungary, Greece, and Italy to help ease the awful suffering of the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing their war-torn homelands for a better life in the West.
There is an alternative to the cynicism, bitterness, and despair that blights the goodness in the world. The clue is in Jesus’ words to Peter and all of us, just as it lies in the other readings and in the stories of helpers and workers. It has to do with courage. Not sheer stubbornness, much less vindictiveness, but the ability to keep going when opposition and rejection and even outright persecution threaten to destroy our confidence in God’s presence and ever-ready assistance when we try to feed the hungry, visit the sick and imprisoned, clothe the naked, comfort those who mourn, and create a world where peace and justice are not just words.
The cross we face may seem huge and heavy, but still we need to pick it up every day. But if I am not mistaken, it gets lighter as we go, because we are not carrying it by ourselves. In the end, we will find it carrying us … in the hands of countless followers of the rejected Christ.